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Thursday, March 14, 2013
Rebel proof new points system works

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

Those Kentucky Derby scholarships have been revoked, those free rides discontinued that would have led to a reserved stall in the starting gate. Sixteen spots for the Derby remain open and vacant; they wait to be won. And so the next five weeks could produce some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern interstate highway system that annually leads to Kentucky.

It's a healthy situation for the sport, and it's largely a result of the new point system employed by Churchill Downs. When announced last year, the new system met with skepticism and with tiresome cackles of "If it ain't broke …" The usual parties circled around, quite predictably, to protect their own interests, whether they were the entitlements of precocious 2-year-olds or the exalted status of certain races. Only a few observers, it seemed, even acknowledged that there might be a larger question, as in whether this change would be good for racing. Well, it is. It's very good for racing, which the upcoming weeks will demonstrate.

As you're undoubtedly aware, points in designated races have replaced earnings in graded stakes as the criterion for determining the 20 Kentucky Derby starters. But why is that improvement, and why is it salubrious for the sport?

If the earlier method were still employed today, then at least 12 Triple Crown nominees, not counting fillies or injured horses, such as Violence and Ive Struck A Nerve, would already have a bankroll large enough to virtually guarantee them a run at the famed roses. Even worse, they wouldn't necessarily be the 12 most worthy horses, nor would they be the fans' most desirable dozen.

He's Had Enough, for example, has $442,000 in graded earnings, most of that ($360,000) from his runner-up finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a race that nearly disintegrated in the overheated turbulence of its pace. Under the graded-earnings criterion, that $442,000 would have reserved him a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Last year, with earnings in graded stakes of $184,708, Optimizer was the 20th horse to qualify for the Derby. In 2010, Make Music For Me needed $218,750 in graded earnings to gain the 20th spot in the Derby, and that was the most ever required.

In other words, under the former rules, He's Had Enough would have earned all he needed in the Juvenile; he, in effect, would have won a Kentucky Derby scholarship by finishing second last November at Santa Anita. But does he deserve a scholarship, a free ride into the Derby? Should he already have a reserved stall in the starting gate and a saddle towel adorned with a Derby logo and his name? After all, he has won only once in his career, a maiden race in his debut. And since the Breeders' Cup, he has finished fifth in the CashCall Futurity, third (which was also next to last) in the Robert Lewis Stakes and fifth in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by a total of nearly 27 lengths.

Does Fortify deserve a scholarship? With $220,000 in graded earnings as a 2-year-old, he would have had one under the former system, even though he has won only once in his career and finished sixth in his most recent outing in Dubai.

In the new qualifying format, a horse might need something around 40 points to assure himself a place in the roseate lineup. He's Had Enough has six points and Fortify three, but with 12 races remaining that offer points, they still have the opportunity to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby, and that's, well, the point. The new system is more meritocratic.

And, in fact, it was indeed broken, that old system for determining the Derby starters. For evidence of that, just look at the leading graded money winners among this year's Triple Crown nominees and ask yourself how many of the top 20 should run in the Kentucky Derby.

Grades were never intended to be used for winnowing the Derby chaff from the Derby contenders. Success in a six-furlong race for 2-year-olds or in a turf race, no matter what their grades, isn't predictive of success in the Kentucky Derby. And, frankly, Churchill Downs was foolish ever to allow the Graded Stakes Committee to determine who runs in the Derby. Why would you throw a million-dollar party and let some committee in Lexington make out the guest list?

But with its point system, Churchill took possession of its Derby this year, and the consequences of that decision are already looking very positive. Only four horses -- Hear The Ghost, Orb, Verrazano and Vyjack, who all have 50 points -- are already in the Derby.

And so, 16 spots are open with 12 races remaining. That's the sort of drama fans love. Does the new system place too much emphasis on these final races, which are worth more points than earlier preps?

Pondering that question and having realized that the foremost Triple Crown candidate in his barn, Uncaptured, would have, because of a minor injury, only two races prior to the Derby, trainer Mark Casse said, "If a horse can't run well in either of his final preps, then he shouldn't be in the Derby."

If that seems apostasy, it's because the Derby scholarship has become so accepted. But the scholarships have been revoked and the free rides discontinued.

No, this year, for many, getting into the Derby comes down to these final prep races. Momentum is building; stakes are rising. To reserve a place for himself in the Churchill starting gate, Shanghai Bobby needs another good outing in the Florida Derby, but is that too much to ask of a champion? Revolutionary needs a one-two finish in the Louisiana Derby, Normandy Invasion needs to put his troubles behind him in the Wood, and Uncaptured must return with his best form in either the Spiral or the Blue Grass if they're to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby.

These final preps are going to reverberate with drama and intrigue. Just look at Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, worth 50 points to the winner, which, of course, is tantamount to a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Super Ninety Nine, who won the Southwest Stakes in a romp, has returned from California and appears formidable, even intimidating, but few have backed down. In fact, the field is laden with speed, with the sort of horses that could challenge Super Ninety Nine early. Delhomme, for example, who finished third after leading until deep stretch in the Remsen, is making his seasonal debut. Oxbow, who won the Lecomte Stakes by more than 11 lengths before a troubled trip and a fourth in the Risen Star Stakes, could also challenge. Treasury Bill and Den's Legacy would probably benefit from a lively and contentious pace, and then there's Carve, an intriguing sort if only because he's unbeaten.

It's a terrific race, this Rebel, and it's just the next step in this progression. Partly because of a new point system, the next five weeks could offer some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern thoroughfare that leads to Kentucky.